Superhero vs. superhero is the oldest trick in the comic book. One superpowered being pitted against another because of a difference in their deeply rooted principles, wreaking havoc in the wake of their battle, with ramifications that echo throughout the comic-book universe, usually ending with tragic consequences, leading to regret and remorse and a new reason to fight another day. It breaks up the monotony of hero vs. villain, allows for the heroes’ character development to take interesting turns, and it’s super-easy to market. Just look at the ready-made taglines: Unstoppable force meets immovable object. A clash of titans. Two enter the ring, only one leaves. There will be blood. This time…it’s personal. Whose side are you on? Who will win?
I dare you to tell me which ones are the real taglines for these movies. If you guessed the two questions, congratulations! You don’t win anything, but you do get to be right. “Whose side are you on?” was Civil War’s and “Who will win?” was Batman v Superman’s. Those taglines are, uh…uninspired, to say the least. Granted, it’s not like Disney or Warner Brothers needed a tagline to sell tickets to these movies, but they could’ve at least acted like they were trying. At least “This time it’s personal” is corny. The only adjective the real taglines make you think of is “boring”. Or, I suppose, “uninspired”.
Of course, “boring” is also an appropriate descriptor for at least one of these movies, and it certainly applies to the thought process behind the bare-bones structure of both of them. Another way of saying “superhero vs. superhero is the oldest trick in the comic book” is to say “oh shit, we don’t have anymore ideas.” After the tepid response to Man of Steel by both critics and audiences, and while Marvel continued to have cinematic success after cinematic success, Warner Brothers and DC needed their next movie to make a statement, both for their bottom line and in order to set up their own movie universe. So they chose to pit their two greatest heroes (read: commodities) against each other. And Marvel and Disney, who have received most of their criticism for the handling of their largely mediocre villains (Loki notwithstanding), decided to make a movie that essentially eschews the villains altogether.
It’s all more complicated than “oh shit, we don’t have anymore ideas”- there are too many steps in the moviemaking process for it not to be. But that doesn’t mean the general sentiment isn’t true. Batman v Superman, which is a mostly well-cast, glossy blockbuster, also happens to be a boring slog with a bad screenplay. Jesse Eisenberg is a disaster as Lex Luthor. Someone really should have told him he wasn’t playing the Joker. But everyone else is likeable and does well with what they’re given, specifically Ben Affleck, who brings a fiery stoicism to a one-note character, and Gal Gadot, who gives the movie its only signs of life in her brief but fun appearance.
While WB got most of the cast right, they got almost everything else wrong. There are no memorable action sequences; even the big, titular clash is uninspiring. The other superpowered characters who will appear alongside the Big Three in the upcoming Justice League movie (the Flash, Cyborg, and Aquaman) are introduced in little segments that are shoehorned into the larger plot. And while director Zach Snyder deserves credit for his often ambitious imagery and themes, good intentions do not a good movie make.
Marvel’s decision to utilize the Civil War storyline for its next Captain America movie stank of hubris with a faint whiff of desperation. Making plans for your movies years in advance can be practical, but it also assumes the audience’s appetite will look the same as it does right now. Marvel was fresh off the success of Phase 1 and in the middle of a well-received Phase 2, so they planned a release date for a story that in the comics was too bulky for its own good. The Civil War storyline in the comics was at its best at the micro-level, considering the effects of the superhero schism on its characters’ relationships, and not at the macro-level, forcing ramifications on every corner of the company’s fictional universe.
Thankfully, what could have been a disastrous failure has turned into a resounding success. Captain America: Civil War, while teeming with nearly every hero in Marvel’s movie quiver and adding a couple more (the wonderful Tom Holland’s Spider-Man and the promising Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther), manages to be a relatively small-scale story. There’s no threat to the world, no unstoppable alien force to shoot out of the sky, no artificial-intelligence entity to unplug. This is ultimately a human-level story that cares just as much about the tensions between Tony Stark and Steve Rogers as it does about the action between Iron Man and Captain America.
And what awesome action! Unlike Zack Snyder, the Russo brothers seem to understand that movie fights can have intense stakes while also being fun. Civil War’s marketing sure didn’t make it seem like it would be as fun as it ended up being. The trailers for Civil War made it seem like it would be just as dour and lifeless as Batman v Superman. In fact, Civil War is far more nuanced than its “This time…it’s personal” marketing implied. And, for what it’s worth, “This time…it’s personal” would have been way too nuanced a tagline for Batman v Superman.
Civil War, though its marketing was markedly similar to BvS‘s, has grossed more worldwide in 2 weeks than BvS did in its entire run. There are other factors, to be sure, but it’s also sure that audiences responded better to Civil War living up to its hype than to BvS being nothing but hype. Both DC and Marvel went to an old trick to breathe some life into their franchises, but only one of them realized tricks only work if there’s a payoff.